The air was chilly and my ice cream rocky. As I walked my way to the Real Mary King’s Close tour, the buildings on the Royal Mile streets of Edinburgh looked stone-cold. Even the grey sky seemed to hint at the grim tour I’d signed up for. They say Mary King’s Close is one of the most haunted places in Scotland’s capital city, and the setting certainly seemed to suit the rumour so far.
The Scots call streets ‘closes’. Mary King’s Close, though, is no ordinary street. It sits underground, below the Edinburgh City Chambers building. No wonder people fear it’s haunted! But I was reassured when a costumed guide greeted me and the rest of the spook-hungry tourists at the door. Together, we walked down several steps, right down to Edinburgh’s own inferno, perhaps. To add to my anticipation, the path was poorly lit, the ceiling low and no windows in sight.
Alleys led to smaller alleyways with several rooms along them. These rooms were apparently people’s homes in the 17th century–small, windowless, and lacking washrooms. The guide narrated how these homes were the lowest of the seven-storey high tenements and were occupied by the economically backward. Given the unsanitary conditions they lived in, the occupants of the lowest storeys were often the first to fall victim to diseases. After all, the sewage from the city flowed openly on the streets and into the Nor Loch (Northern Lake).
Back then, Mary King’s Close was the closest to this “lake”. So, I wasn’t very surprised to learn that the black plague hit the residents of the close and many of them dropped dead like flies. Leading us from room to room, the guide narrated various stories of the horrors of the plague attack. One story that sent shivers down my spine was that of a Japanese psychic’s supposed encounter with the ghost of a little girl called Annie.
Upon visiting this close in the recent times, the psychic claimed that the little girl’s parents had abandoned her when they found out she had contracted the deadly epidemic. Archaeological research hasn’t found evidence of an Annie who may have lived there once. But many continue to claim feeling the girl’s presence; they even leave dolls in the girl’s room for her–some as a mark of sympathy, some owing to the belief that her ghost misses her doll. The doll pile didn’t creep me out nearly as much as Annie’s story horrified me. Whether or not it’s true, the idea that a sick girl might have been abandoned is terrible. It could easily have been the story of any of the thousands who perished there.
Mary King was a beacon of light in one of the darkest alleys.
As we went further into the depths of the alleys, the guide’s storytelling came alive with life-like wax statues of plague victims–from new-borns to elderly people–and a brave doctor tending to them. Clearly, most doctors had feared contact with the diseased. Urban legends even claim the close itself was walled up from the rest of the city in an attempt to contain the plague! I saw then that it wasn’t ghosts that haunted this close, but rather its history and legends.
Today too, the close is nearest to the loch. However, that loch is no longer a dump, but a botanical site (no points for guessing why). What had once caused such havoc is now a peaceful garden. The thought put me slightly more at ease. But I needn’t have fretted, because the close was also home to a happy story–one of a burgess Mary King. It was rather unheard of for a woman to carry the title of a burgess in the 17th century. But apparently, Mary King was a special woman in more ways than one.
Mary King had moved to the close, along with her husband burgess Thomas Nimmo, in 1616. Back then, the close was actually called ‘Alexander King’s Close’, named after a prominent lawyer in the city. When Thomas died in 1629, he left Mary everything, even his title and voting rights. With four children to take care of, Mary decided to sew garments and sell fine clothing. Soon, she even managed to set up a small shop on the High Street. With that, they say, she was able to afford a decent lifestyle even with four mouths to feed.
Such was her fame that the close was renamed ‘Mary King’s Close’ after her. So, not only did a woman in 17th century Edinburgh have voting rights, but also a trade that gave her and her four children a comfortable lifestyle. Clearly, merchant Mary King was a beacon of light even in one of the darkest of alleys.
Thanks to Mary King, I was reassured that human spirit can overcome even the direst of living conditions and that determination can ease even the worst of times. After all, Mary King’s Close had a positive story to share, despite its past of poverty and plague. That evening, as I left the close and resurfaced to the cold streets of present-day Edinburgh, I had a new-found faith in humanity.